AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — It came down to the end, with the Utes hanging on by their fingernails.

After beating almost everyone else by shocking margins, finally they had a scare in their 28-23 win over Air Force, Saturday. Which was a good thing for them. Everyone needs a reality check once in awhile.

What am I saying?

Does a banker need to lose a million bucks in order to be more careful? Does a chef need a mouse in his soup?

It might teach a lesson, but the Utes needed a scare the way America needs a double-dip recession.

Prosperous is better.

After seven games of mostly dominant football, the Utes finally got a jolt. The Falcons didn't run out of energy, they just ran out of clock. If the game had lasted another minute, the Utes might have lost. Heck, they could have lost if it had lasted another 10 seconds. The Falcons scored twice in 72 seconds to cut a 28-10 deficit to 28-23.

The Utes went from cocky to jittery to frightened.

"Well, definitely, I guess it was good for us. It humbled us quite a bit," said offensive lineman Zane Taylor. "But that's what it's like every year against Air Force. I'm glad we don't have to play them again."

Realistically, the Utes had this coming. They were starting to think they were pretty good — with good reason. They had scored 50 or more points in four games, equaling what they did in their precedent-setting 2004 season. They were on pace for a school-record scoring average (48 ppg).

It was understandable when they beat New Mexico by 42, San Jose State by 53, Colorado State by 53. But beating Iowa State by 41 was an eye-opener.

Still, it's really not surprising the Utes would almost be bushwhacked by the Falcons. This always happens. It's as regular as a daily reveille. You can count on taxes to rise. You can count on gaining weight over time. And you can always, always, count on Air Force to give the Utes trouble.

After years of struggling against Air Force — the Utes won six of the previous seven, but only once by more than eight points — Utah wanted to leave the Academy with a flash and a boom. How fitting. After all, this is the place where they start every game with a stadium fly-over. Why not rattle the Falcons?

The Utes started the game without top receiver DeVonte Christopher, who was out with a knee injury. That's not to say their problem was receivers. Rather, it was in the defense — in a good news/bad news sort of way. The bad news for the Utes: They couldn't do a lot, at times, to stop Air Force's triple-option offense. Their good news: They forced five turnovers, thus keeping things from getting out of hand.

While there have been many memorable AFA-Utah games, this one was an image that will probably last for the Utes. High, Air Force blue skies, bright and nearly cloudless. Then came the traditional flyover, an inspiring sight, the stadium trembling as the jets pass. When the cadets march smartly in wearing their uniforms and military hats, you're in Top Gun heaven.

Of course, Top Gun the movie came out long before most of the Utes were born, and long before they knew how to work a DVD or VCR.

So they shouldn't have been impressed at all.

For a team ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, rushing defense, scoring defense, passing defense, third-down defense and opponent first-down defense, you'd think the Utes would have smothered the Falcons. Not so. In fact, they looked completely baffled in the first half. Air Force ran up 252 total yards.

Though Utah led 14-10 at the break, the message was this: The Utes could be felled.

Now it's on to the year's biggest game, a match with undefeated TCU. Which raises the question of whether Utah needed this little altitude-inspired reality check before facing the Horned Frogs.

"Apparently," said offensive tackle Tony Bergstrom.

He continued: "I don't know if we needed it, but I don't know if I can take any more of these. I kept thinking 'We've been through worse' — we were down 14-0 to Cal last year. But still, it trips you out."

Lessons that you'd rather avoid usually do.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com